Turkey and the Kingdom of Heaven

Since I was little, I have always loved the smell of turkey cooking in the oven on Thanksgiving. At breakfast, I would ask my mom, “Can I have some turkey?” She would answer, “It’s not ready yet.” Again at lunch time, I would ask, “Can I have some turkey now?” and again the response, “It’s still not ready.” The smell of the turkey made me long for the turkey. My mouth watered for the turkey. I could not wait for that Thanksgiving meal that I knew was coming but was still being prepared.

Lately, my son Aidan has been playing the Prelude in C Major by J. S. Bach. It is one of the simplest and most famous pieces written for the piano, because it is profoundly beautiful. If you stop to study the piece though, you find that there is a surprisingly amount of ugly dissonance. The broken chords cause pain to our ears, functioning like the smell of turkey baking in the oven and driving us forward to that resolution which Bach eventually gives. In the end, the journey of dissonance and pain contributes to making the piece so beautiful. Without it, the final chord would lose all meaning and significance.

What is the role of art in mission? It shares the gospel truth that beauty will come out of pain and suffering. Art makes us yearn for resolution to the dissonance in our lives and assures us that one day we will indeed find it. Art gives us that mouth-watering sense of already tasting what is to come. Art makes us yearn for that perfect peace promised by the coming of the kingdom of heaven.

As you smell turkey baking this Thanksgiving, remember the ultimate banquet that is being prepared for you that will fulfill every desire. May our Thanksgiving feast and fun whet our appetites for the ultimate satisfaction of fellowship around God's table.


The Reclining Buddha

One of the most popular sites in Bangkok is Wat Pho, the center of the traditional Thai massage. A Thai massage is nothing like the relaxing massage for shoulders or feet that most people think of. Rather, it is a "participatory sport" involving the whole body that one Thai friend jokingly referred to as yoga for lazy people. It is an ancient healing system combining (quite painful) acupressure and assisted stretching using the hands, knees, and feet of the physician to compress, pull, and stretch the muscles.

Wat Pho was established in the late 1700's as the first public university in Thailand to preserve and teach knowledge, including the established techniques of Thai massage, the study of complete physical, mental, and emotional well-being. This knowledge can know be found inscribed in rock on the walls of the buildings, mapping out points and pathways of energy in the body.

Wat Pho is also home to the Reclining Buddha, a 150 ft long statue shining brightly with heavenly gold leaf that surrounds the structure. It is hard not to be moved by the awesome presence of the scene—a man lying down in the final moments of his life with a serene smile on his face. In the midst of suffering from illness and certain death, the Reclining Buddha has found complete peace. He lies there solid, calm, compassionate, and above all, complete.

In this statue, Buddha exudes the message, “I’ve done it. It’s over. It is finished.” Looking at this statue, my thoughts turned to the last moments of Jesus’ life. What a contrast! Bleeding and dying on the cross, in the midst of suffering and certain death, Jesus cried, “It is finished.” Jesus’ last moments ended in complete agony. And yet, Jesus hangs there on the cross also compassionate and complete.

Jesus tells us the way to complete well-being in our bodies and lives is not through our own efforts but only through his efforts. Jesus lost his serene smile and suffered so that we could rest and have the glorious calm of heaven.

The peace of God, which passeth all understanding,
shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7, KJV)

Thai massage and deep meditation is wonderful, but Jesus tells us we cannot heal ourselves. We need the attention of the great physician to cure and eradicate cancerous sin from our bodies and souls. We need the hands and feet of Jesus to work on us and give us a taste of this peace that surpasses all human understanding. Because of his suffering sacrifice, we too can finally have a serene smile, knowing and experiencing the complete shalom of heaven.


The Anguish of Bach

Michael, who is interning with us from Alabama, took these photos of me explaining the anguish of Bach to a large group in West Tokyo last weekend. When I asked him to capture the event, this isn't exactly what I meant...


A Look at Oswald Chambers

“Shut out every other consideration
and keep yourself before God for this one thing only—
My Utmost for His Highest.
I am determined to be absolutely and entirely for Him and for Him alone.”

We know Oswald Chambers as a writer, but did you know that he was also an artist and a missionary? He studied for a time and was offered a scholarship at what is now the Royal College of Art in London, ranked as the top art school in the world. While in college, he became zealous for Christ and decided to enter a small theological college. As he described it, “My whole being is ablaze and passionately on fire to preach Christ; my art aim is swallowed up in this now.” While there, he met a man from Japan and decided to travel to Japan as a missionary. That did not work out, so he returned to Scotland for a while to teach at another seminary before eventually becoming a chaplain/missionary in Egypt during World War I, where he died of complications from surgery. After his death, Chambers’ wife Biddy edited and published his talks and writings to make him one of the most famous writers of the evangelical movement in the twentieth century.

Looking at Oswald Chambers, I have to wonder what could have been if he had been surrounded by friends who encouraged him in a pursuit of his artistic gifts AND world missions. Myself serving in Japan, an extremely artistic culture, I wonder how his impact there would have been different if he had used his artistic gifts. In his last year of life, he wrote the following words in his journal.

“There comes to me growingly a sense of the ‘externals’ of things. Perhaps the plunging horror and conviction of sin in my early life not only disrupted my art calling and all the tendencies of those years but switched me off by a consequent swing of the pendulum away from external beauties of expression in form and color and rhetoric, and made me react to the rugged and uncouth and unrefined. But now I seem to have the experience Ruskin (the famous art critic who tried to bring Lilias Trotter back to her art) refers to: his grief at realizing the loss of his appreciation of the beauty of an English hedgerow, and his sad wonder if he would ever have the old emotions back again.” 

Chambers was heavily influenced by the dominant missionary spirit of a hundred years ago, which tended to eschew the arts, imagination, and creativity. I see lasting effects of that methodology even today in the churches of Japan. If Chambers had lived longer, I believe he would have again found his art, and it would have been to him and all who knew him, not a hindrance, but an encouragement in his missionary endeavors in contemplating and teaching about the kingdom of God. 


A Look at Lilias Trotter

Have you seen the film "Many Beautiful Things" (2015)? Available on iTunes, this documentary tells the story of Lilias Trotter (1853-1928), an extremely gifted artist, who was acclaimed by the top art critic of the day to be possibly England's top living artist. Though, Lilias decided to give up her art and move to North Africa as a missionary. As I study her life and writings, I have mixed feelings. I am very inspired by her fresh views of God and the gospel, but I am also sad. What would have happened if a community of Christian artists had come alongside her and encouraged her to use her phenomenal artistic gifts in ministry? What if someone had shown her that it is possible to be a missionary AND an artist? What if she realized she did not have to choose one or the other?


Arts, Missions, and The Alamo

Driving west as a family, we decided to visit The Alamo, one of America's most famous stories of courage in the face of impossible odds and certain death. Sam Houston called out "Remember the Alamo!" in a battle afterwards, which eventually led to the annexation of the state of Texas in exchange for the life of President General Santa Anna.

The Alamo holds special fascination for me, because it is one of America's most famous examples of foreign missions. Franciscan missionary Father Antonio was determined to bring the gospel to Native Americans living by the clear waters of what was renamed the San Antonio River. At first, he led worship services in thatched huts but soon built the large chapel and buildings now known as The Alamo, and developed fields for farming and livestock. Over the following years, four more missions were planted downstream. The guide told us The Alamo was secularized when the job of missionaries was "done," turning the Native Americans into obedient Spanish subjects and the Native American village into a colony of Spain. The Alamo became a military outpost.

The sad story is all too common in missions history. Missions led to colonization led to military outposts, a progression that led Japan to kick out all missionaries for over 250 years and close the country to foreign influence.

In the early morning, I ran to Mission Concepción, the first mission south of the Alamo, and was struck by its appearance. It seemed more like a castle than a missionary outpost! Could not something smaller suffice? Were there not only a few living in the area? A cynical person may call the buildings a power play, but I personally found the beauty of the buildings moving. Inside, the walls and ceilings had at one time been decorated with beautiful paintings. Music, paintings, sculptures, and carvings helped display the beauty and glory and awe of God, attracting Native Americans and everyone else.

"As I go through Mission Concepción, I have lots of questions. What were my ancestors thinking when they saw this beautiful church and heard the music? Can you imagine how their hearts must've been beating with anxiety?" (Estella Kierce, Native American, National Park Service website)

Arts in mission is an extremely powerful tool for starting churches in foreign lands, and that tool needs to be used wisely, with care to separate one's own culture from the gospel message. Let's "Remember the Alamo!" and the lessons it has to teach.

The walls and towers of Mission Conceptión rise like a castle above the grounds near the San Antonio River.


Dr. King, Gospel Music, and Creative Suffering

Japanese black gospel choir singing at our HIDDEN BEAUTY arts conference last October. Watch the video here.
(In the beginning, Yuko and Abi explain in Japanese about the "hidden" message and power of gospel music. I recommend starting at the 10-minute mark.)
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis fifty years ago on April 4, 1968. On that same day earlier this month, MLK50 events celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. King took place all over the city. You could feel excitement in the air everywhere, reinforced by police escorts zipping famous people around the city, blocked-off streets, and a lot of security. All month long, we as a city have been talking about Dr. King in social media, schools, churches, and around dinner tables.

I attended the MLK50 conference put on by the Gospel Coalition in the convention center downtown. Four thousand people attended and apparently one million saw it online. (You can watch plenaries and panel discussions online. Speakers emphasized African-American theology of redemptive suffering, which teaches that God will use the unearned suffering of African-Americans for some greater purpose. In the conference, I realized that God is already using the Middle Passage, 250 years of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racism, and ongoing disparities among the African-American population to bring healing and to spread the gospel around the world, especially in the country of Japan.


During the Civil Rights era, Dr. King led nonviolent protests in order to address issues of injustice. He called this a "creative" approach to suffering, rooted in the cross and designed to bring a redemptive outcome. In the famous "I Have A Dream speech," Dr. King said:

"I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of CREATIVE SUFFERING. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive." (emphasis mine)

Nonviolent approaches to suffering stem from a long heritage of "creatively" engaging suffering. In fact, African-Americans artists have been doing this from the very beginning through song.

Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, Nobody knows but Jesus.
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, Glory, Hallelujah!

Slaves responded to injustice and suffering by singing songs of unquenchable hope in light of the cross. "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen" sings of personal "trouble," while also clearly pointing to Jesus, the one who suffered on our behalf. As a result, suffering is redeemed allowing for the praise and glory of hallelujahs. This is one of the best examples of faith that God works through our suffering. "We'll Understand It By And By" also affirms the belief that God will bring good from suffering. We cannot understand why we have so many trials, but this must not lead us to despair but rather to trust in God that he will make a way out of no way and "lead us to that Blessed Promised Land."

Trials dark on every hand, and we cannot understand
All the ways God would lead us to that Blessed Promised Land;
But he guides us with His eye and we'll follow till we die,
For we'll understand it better by and by.

And when the prophet Jeremiah asked the question, in utter despair, "Is there a balm in Gilead?" (Jeremiah 8:22), the African-American slaves responded with an emphatic, "Yes!" They changed the question mark into an exclamation point! As one of the speakers, Mika Edmondson, put it, "Here we see a positive belief in the dawn which uses the midnight of life as a raw material out of which it creates its own strength. This was the growing edge of hope that kept the slaves going amid the most barren and tragic circumstances." (Mika Edmondson. The Power of Unearned Suffering. Lexington Books: Lanham, 2017, 37) Slaves found hope and healing in the gospel through their creative response to suffering.

There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead, To heal the sin-sick soul.

During the Civil Rights era, Dr. King led nonviolent protests in order to address issues of injustice. He called this a "creative" approach to suffering, rooted in the cross and designed to bring a redemptive outcome. In the famous "I Have A Dream speech," Dr. King said: When we faced tremendous suffering along the tsunami-stricken northeast coast of Japan seven years ago, it was natural to bring in gospel choirs. The clear message of hope amidst suffering completely changed the atmosphere of every shelter, church, outdoor venue, and public venue we sang in.

"Let's Gospel!!" Advertising for one of our gospel concerts in the tsunami-stricken region of Japan.

When we brought our first gospel choir from Memphis to Japan 13 years ago, we were frequently asked questions like, "Why is black gospel so popular in Japan?" This popularity has only grown over the years to include other art forms such as hip hop, an art form born out of the suffering of African-American urban youth. (You can see Brazilian missionary JP and my son Aidan do hip hop street evangelism here.) I believe the popularity of gospel music in Japan is rooted in its clear message of hope. Rather than ganbatte kudasai, "Keep it up! Don't give up!" the message powerfully becomes "There IS a balm in Gilead. You can be healed! You can become whole!"

Like thousands of others in Japan, O-Chan and his wife Asami both became Christians through black gospel choir ministry in Japan. O-Chan is now training to be a pastor, and he intends to continue to work with black gospel music to spread the gospel and plant churches in Japan. You can read about their story here.

Abi translates for O-Chan and Asami at the Global Missions Conference in Dallas last November as they spread the message to thousands about the power of gospel music in Japan.
God is working through African American artists to creatively engage suffering with the gospel. This is the arts in mission. This is God working through African American suffering to bring a message of hope and healing, spreading the gospel to millions around the globe. May God continue to to bring this message of hope to the people of Japan.